Jack Johnson helping Blue Jackets stay in the playoff mix

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) handles the puck as Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and defenseman Kris Letang (58) defend during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 2-1.

Charles LeClaire/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Call it an early Christmas present for the Blue Jackets and their fans.

After a so-so start to the season, Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson has stepped up his game in a big way and been an impact player in the team’s strong December. Whether it’s been jumping into the play offensively or using his speed to close the gap defensively, Johnson has been visible in all three zones of late. He says his more offensive-minded play is simply a result of the way games have gone.

"I think because it’s just I’ve been getting more opportunities of late," he said. "You can’t force it. I like to jump up as much as I can. It’s fun; it’s not as much fun sitting back, so I’m trying to contribute as much as I can to help the forwards out. Having four (‘forwards’) out there instead of three makes it a little bit easier on the rush, makes the other team think a little bit more.

Skille feeling much better about his game

"Those opportunities aren’t there all the time, but when they are, I try to take advantage of it," he continued. "And I think we’re playing better as a team as of late. In the last 10 games or so we’ve been playing a lot better. I not only have faith in our forwards but faith in my own skating ability that I can get back."

At least from the outside, he also seems to be playing a more physical game. With the NHL’s crackdown on borderline hits, Johnson — like a lot of his contemporaries — isn’t looking as much for the open-ice hit, but he’s making his physical presence felt nonetheless, as the Blue Jackets have slowly turned things around this month.

"For sure," he explained, "I don’t really look for the open-ice hits as much because of suspensions. I think everyone kind of feels that way, so you’re really cautious of hitting a guy in open ice. But along the boards and other tight spaces, it’s something I do think I can take advantage of. I think I’m definitely bigger than most guys and can win a majority of my puck battles."

The former first-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes is coming off another plus game in the Blue Jackets come-from-behind win in Raleigh before Christmas. He was +1 in that game and is +6 over the past seven, chipping in four assists in that time. Again, he attributes his ability to produce to the team’s overall improved play.

"We’re a lot more in synch," said. Johnson. "I think we were a little out of sorts to start the year. It wasn’t because guys weren’t trying. Guys are just starting to get into a rhythm and understanding what they need to do. When you have your good games and bad games, you realize what you need to do to contribute, and I think every guy is kind of settled into finding what they need to do to help this team win."

A native of Michigan, Johnson already has represented Team USA in the Olympics. He was part of the memorable 2010 team that earned its way to the Gold Medal game in Vancouver before falling in overtime to Sidney Crosby and Team Canada. He admits it would be an honor to go to Sochi early next year. And, yes, he’s thinking about it.

"Of course it’s in your mind; it’s the Olympics," Johnson noted. "You try to keep it in the back of your mind, and that’s where it’s going to be, but really all you can do — in my situation — is help the Blue Jackets win, do what I can out here to the best of my abilities, and hopefully the chips fall in place. I’d love to go a second time. It’s the Olympic Games, the biggest stage in the world, so it’s obviously something you’re going to think about."

The way Johnson’s been playing, he and his teammates may also be thinking about playoffs, long after the 2014 Games have ended.